I had a fun 5 years in the 90s writing plays and getting them produced.  Five plays showcased in five years — I felt like a success!  But then reality intervened in the form of the need to make a living with more gainful employment, as I couldn’t find anyone willing to pay me to continue to write plays.

That immersion in the world of theatre taught me a number of lessons that turned out to be very useful in crafting good speeches and working with clients to make the speech both substantive and eye-catching, a performance.

In particular, playwrights live and die by their dramatic tension — how gripping is the conflict in the play? — and their dramatic dialogue – how well does the dialogue push the tension, the plot, and the characters forward?

These same lessons apply well to speechwriting.  And somewhere in those five years, I ran across a wonderful list of the attributes of good dialogue which stood me well during those five years.  I ran across the file recently and realized that it has use for taking your speechwriting to the next level.

Here’s the list.  Check it over to see how well your speeches are serving to keep your audiences on the edge of their seats.

Dramatic Dialogue — and Great Speechwriting — has:

1.  A narrative function (what is the overall story you’re telling?)

2.  It reveals character (who are you and what are you about?)

3.  It reveals plot (what keeps the audience listening from moment to moment — where is the speech headed?)

4.  It establishes mood (what’s the attitude of the speech — is it funny, angry, deep, etc?)

5.  It establishes a rhythmic and dynamic basis for the score of the performance (does your language have variety and pacing; are the sentences different lengths and cadences?)

6.  It creates visual imagery of the world of the play (what kind of visual imagery does your speech create?)

7.  It functions as onomatopoeia, helping to convey meaning through the sound as well as the sense of language (is your language powerful for the ear?)

8.  It establishes a unique and special voice for each character (in the case of speechwriting, is your voice coming through?)

9.  And it still needs to sound like a human being might say it! (does your language flow trippingly off the tongue, or is it stilted and false?)

The secret of good playwriting is to get your characters to do a lot more than just talk.  Speechwriting, too, needs to be more than simply a conversation  with the audience.  It needs all the art and sophistication you can muster.  Use this checklist to think about how to make your speech content stronger.


  1. I didn’t know you were also a playwright, Nick! These are great tips. And it boils down to something I was taught: every scene, every line, every word must serve a purpose. There’s no room for filler. If it doesn’t move the story forward, it has to be cut. Clever for the sake of clever isn’t good enough if it doesn’t serve your larger point. Great advice for speakers who are tempted to through in one more example or one more chunk of data.

  2. Great tips. For me the most important one # 9. Say it before you write it and you will sound conversational. I’m reminded of a quote by Harrison Ford. Ford was struggling to deliver some lines written by George Lucas for Star Wars IV. Ford said, “You can type this s**t, George, but you sure can’t say it.” Any understandable dialogue must be spoken first, then written. I really enjoyed your posts. Thank you for all the insights.

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